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Bird is the Word

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s historic Bird House may be under renovation, but that has not stopped the animal care team from bringing native shorebirds, songbirds and waterfowl under their wing to establish best practices in husbandry and breeding. In the past few months, keepers celebrated many significant hatchings behind the scenes — including flamingos, wood thrush, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings and a band-tailed pigeon — as well as the arrival of horseshoe crabs! Get the scoop from Bird House curator Sara Hallager and animal keepers Gwen Cooper, Kathy Brader and Shelby Burns.

Flamingo Chicks

American flamingo chicks hatched at the Bird House in summer 2019.

American Flamingo

“Many people only see the outward beauty of a flamingo — the sound, the color, the movement of the flock. But these birds are beautiful and smart. Everything about flamingos fascinates me, from the way they eat to the way they stand. We currently have 67 flamingoes in our flock and welcomed four chicks — three males and one female — in July.

"When the female and one of the male chicks were around 3 weeks old, we noticed that their parents we not feeding them as frequently as the others, and they would often go off by themselves. We are hand-raising them in a separate enclosure where they can see and hear the flock. Once we are confident that they are able to forage in the large pool and move with the flock, we will reintegrate them into the flock. The female has a very sweet personality and is very comfortable around people; the male tends to keep his distance from keepers, but is a good companion for her. When they are fully grown, the male will be around 5.5 feet tall and weigh about 11 pounds, and the female will be around 4 feet tall and weigh about 6 pounds.” —Gwen Cooper, animal keeper

Wood Thrush chicks in a nest.

Two female wood thrush chicks hatched July 3, 2019. 

Wood Thrush

“Wood thrush are unique among songbirds because males can sing two notes at once. When our wood thrush parents chose to nest at their temporary home in the Zoo’s Science Building, it was quite a surprise! Typically, these secretive birds nest in shrubs or trees — anywhere they can conceal themselves. Interestingly, our parent pair chose to nest out on the open and atop their food stand.

"The Zoo currently has eight wood thrushes in its care, including two female chicks that hatched July 3. Their arrival marked the first successful wood thrush hatching at the Zoo, and keepers were happy to see that the parents were attentive to and protective of their daughters. Just like their parents, the chicks are quite brassy and aren’t fearful of much. Over the summer, we put a sprinkler in their enclosure for some added visual and tactile enrichment. It was a hoot to watch them run in and out of the water — just like children!” —Kathy Brader, animal keeper

Female scarlet tanager.

A female scarlet tanager. She is the mother of two chicks that hatched July 14, 2019. 

Scarlet Tanager

“Male scarlet tanager sport bright red feathers during breeding season. Our male must have been very attractive to our female, because only two months after he arrived at the Zoo, she produced their first clutch! The males may be beautiful, but it is the females — which have feathers of a yellowish-brownish hue — who are the main caregivers of the chicks. The female incubates the eggs, and the male will sometimes bring her food. Once the chicks hatch, both parents feed them, and the female does the brooding as well.

"The Zoo is home to two adult pairs of scarlet tanagers, plus two chicks — a male and a female — who hatched July 14. This is the first time we have bred this species at the Zoo. The chicks seem to enjoy hanging around their parents and will perch next to them while sunning under the UVB light in their enclosure.” —Kathy Brader, animal keeper

Male indigo bunting

A male indigo bunting. 

Indigo Bunting

“Indigo buntings have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to breed in human care, so the fact that we welcomed six chicks over the summer — three males and three females — is simply amazing. In 2018, our team hatched the first indigo buntings under human care in North America. Prior to that, the last reported hatching of the species in a zoo was in the 1890s in Europe — 130 years ago!

"With the hatchings on June 28, June 29 and July 20, we now have 14 birds in our charge. When the chicks are young, females do almost all of the work raising them. As the chicks grow older, the male invests more time and effort. One of my favorite facts about this species is that young males learn how to sing by watching their adult counterparts. Our chicks are starting to mimic their dad’s song, though they haven’t quite got the hang of it yet.” —Kathy Brader, animal keeper

Band-tailed pigeon mother and chick

The Zoo's first band-tailed pigeon chick hatched in July 2019. 

Band-tailed Pigeon

“Over the summer, we welcomed the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s first band-tailed pigeon chick. When keepers presented the adults with a nest and nesting material, an egg appeared only one day later. Males and females take turns incubating the eggs. Our female incubated the egg overnight, and the male took over during mid-day. The parents were so focused on incubating their chick — a male — after he hatched in July that it was difficult to confirm that he had emerged from his shell.

"My favorite memory from the summer was the first time I witnessed the chick with my own eyes. Even though adult band-tailed pigeons are a blue-gray hue, their chicks are yellow and fuzzy. Once I saw a yellow ball of fluff, I knew we had a chick. We set up a camera to keep track of his developments. The moment he decided to leave the nest and spread his wings was incredibly exciting! The chick has a sweet personality and is closely bonded with his family. This is the first species of pigeon that I have cared for, so each new milestone is exciting to witness. Now that the parents have experience raising this chick, we hope to expand our flock next summer. ” —Shelby Burns, animal keeper

Horseshoe crab

Bird House keepers are caring for nine horseshoe crabs behind the scenes. 

Horseshoe Crab

“Horseshoe crabs are a keystone species for the Delaware Bay. They are critical to the survival of migrating shorebirds. In spring, these living fossils come ashore to lay eggs — just as they have done for the past 445 million years. At the same time, migrating shorebirds arrive thin and exhausted. The Delaware Bay is a stopover for many species, such as the red knot, who consume the energy-rich horseshoe crab eggs while recuperating from their long journeys. A bird can double its weight in just three weeks!

"Behind the scenes, the Bird House team is currently caring for two male and seven female adult horseshoe crabs. The trick to telling them apart is to look at their size and their appendages. Females are larger, and males have specialized claws that allow them to grasp the females during breeding. Since taking these arthropods under our care this summer, I was surprised to learn what curious creatures they are. The crabs spend much of their time investigating novel items and foods that we put in their tanks. They also seem to have distinct personalities! We look forward to introducing the horseshoe crabs to visitors when the Bird House reopens in 2021.” —Sara Hallager, curator 

This story appears in the November 2019 issue of National Zoo News. While the Bird House is under construction, Zoo visitors can see birds at Amazonia, American Trail, Cheetah Conservation Station, Kids’ Farm and Small Mammal House.